Wednesday, 4 March 2015
Enhancing Online Safety for Children Bill 2014, Enhancing Online Safety for Children (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2014; Second Reading
At the outset I would like to express my support for the measures in these bills, the Enhancing Online Safety for Children Bill 2014 and the Enhancing Online Safety for Children (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2014. Cyberbullying is a relatively new phenomenon but, unfortunately, the motivations behind it are not. Thankfully, we now have a better understanding of the real psychological harm bullying can cause in all its forms. It is not just part of life or a normal part of growing up. It is not! Cyberbullying is in some ways more insidious than bullying that takes place in person. For people who are subjected to this harassment, there can be little escape. Our 24-hour access to technology means that bullying does not end at the school gate. The anonymity and distance provided by technology mean that bullies often go further than they perhaps would if they were face to face with their victims. These are keyboard cowards. Perhaps saying things to a screen is easier than saying them to someone's face. Online culture also contributes. Often bullying is not just one on one but it can attract a whole group of perpetrators, sometimes people who may not even know the victim but get some warped satisfaction by joining in.
It is clear that we need a new strategy to deal with these new problems. This is something that I have long advocated, as have others, and it is a good thing that the government is acting on this. Schools often have trouble dealing with bullying that occurs out of school hours and away from school premises. Parents have difficulty dealing with it because of gaps in technological knowledge or because children often keep bullying a secret until the matter has escalated beyond control. And law enforcement officers are not always familiar with the tools at their disposal and can sometimes see pursuing children for bullying as a job for parents and schools rather than the police. But we have seen too many tragic cases of people—children and adults—who see no way out of their torment. Pursuing cyberbullies is also complicated by the tangle of jurisdictions, where providers and services are often located overseas and, as such, are hard to pursue. The measures in this bill will provide leadership and guidance at a national level in terms of cyberbullying and give Australian children and their parents an advocate when dealing with these serious issues.
I would like to briefly touch on the story of Carly Ryan, whose tragic death prompted the amendment I foreshadow I will be moving during the committee stage of this bill. At this stage, I indicate that the primary motivation for putting up this amendment is so that this is still front of mind for the Senate, indeed for the entire parliament, when it comes to issues of cybersafety. I see this amendment as a logical and necessary extension to issues of cybersafety. Having a Children's e-Safety Commissioner is of course valuable, but, if this is about keeping children safe, then this amendment is an integral part of that. Carly's story is not one of cyberbullying, but it is a heartbreaking example of how far behind we are lagging in protecting our children online. Carly was 14 years old when she started chatting online to someone she thought was a young teenage musician. But the boy she fell in love with online was actually a 47-year-old internet predator who had over 200 fake identities and was still pursuing multiple young girls all over the world. This man finally convinced Carly they should meet, on 19 February 2007, at Horseshoe Bay in South Australia. There he brutally assaulted her and left her to die.
I want to pay tribute to Sonya Ryan, Carly's mother, a former South Australian of the Year, who, along with her team at the Carly Ryan Foundation, has been a relentless, passionate, inspiring advocate for making children safe. The aim of my amendment, which has previously come before the Senate in the form of a private senator's bill, is to close a loophole in our current law and to give law enforcement an extra tool in pursuing those who seek to harm children. This amendment would make it an offence for a person over 18 to lie about their age in online communications to a person under 16 years of age for the purpose of facilitating or encouraging a physical meeting. If a 50- or 60-year-old male pretends to be a teenager and then communicates with a 13- or 14-year-old girl or boy and attempts to meet that child, then I think that should be a criminal offence. Under our current laws, you need to show a sexual purpose—that it was grooming. There are certain criteria that must be fulfilled. I think we need to have a lesser offence, but nonetheless an offence, to deal with that.
This is something that I discussed briefly on 8 February in Adelaide with Paul Fletcher, the parliamentary secretary responsible for this piece of legislation. I commend him for the hard work he has done. He comes from an eminent background in telecommunications, he knows his stuff and I think he is doing a very fine job as Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Communications. Paul Fletcher was at the launch of the Carly Ryan Foundation's Thread app, which was supported by both state and federal governments. It is a terrific initiative. For anyone out there listening, it is an app that you can download for free. Basically what it means, for adults and particularly for children, is, if a young person is going out at night, they can have certain contacts and, if they are being harassed or threatened, all they need to do is press a button to notify their circle of friends or family. The app can also notify the police, giving a GPS location. I wonder whether, if Carly Ryan had had that app back in 2007, she would still be alive today. I believe she would be. It is a terrific initiative. Paul Fletcher spoke at that launch. This is an app that I think more and more Australians need to get and to use. There will be an Android version coming out soon, and I think we will hear more about it then, because every Australian with a smartphone will be able to access this, particularly every Australian child.
I spoke to Mr Fletcher this morning about my amendment. I made it clear that the purpose of this amendment is to raise this issue again and to flag it, because I have been disappointed with the response of both the government and the opposition in relation to this bill. But I say that without any rancour. I think that having a Children's e-Safety Commissioner provides a vehicle for the commissioner to consider that. I undertake that I will be making submissions to the new commissioner whenever that commissioner is appointed, as I expect the Carly Ryan Foundation will do as well, in order to progress this.
If we are serious about closing the loopholes in our current law, we need to ensure that an adult lying about their age, contacting a child and seeking to meet that child is the subject of sanctions by the law. Perhaps I can put this bluntly. I do not think that sort of conduct would pass the pub test. It is the sort of behaviour that ought to be subject to criminal sanction, albeit at a lesser penalty. But this amendment would mean it is unacceptable behaviour at law. To require evidence of grooming, I think, means it is too late. If the government, as it does now, has metadata powers—leaving aside the bill that will be considered—to track potential suspects in terms of child sexual abuse, then this would be an additional tool for our law enforcement agencies which I believe would be very valuable.
I am grateful for the time that I spent with Mr Fletcher this morning discussing the amendment. I think that the government will continue to look at this. Of course, it is fair to say that no commitments or undertakings were made as such, but I think the fact that Mr Fletcher has an open mind to at least continue to consider this, and that we will have a vehicle through the Children's e-Safety Commissioner to further consider this and perhaps make recommendations about the provisions contained in my amendment, is unambiguously a good thing.
With those few words, I can indicate that I will be supporting this bill. I want the provisions in this bill to be effective. It is long overdue. That is not a criticism of the government or, indeed, the opposition; this is a relatively new phenomenon. But I would urge my parliamentary colleagues that when the amendment comes up, even if they are bound not to support it, they should at least consider this and take the argument up in their party rooms, because if we are serious about cybersafety then we should be serious about those individuals—those adults—that lie about their age to children and attempt to meet them. That, to me, is completely unacceptable, and I owe it to the wonderful people at the Carly Ryan Foundation—in particular Sonya Ryan—to pursue this until we get the legislative reform that is necessary.